Selwyn Primary School, Highams Park: demolish in haste, repent at leisure?

A local resident writes as follows:  

‘Waltham Forest Council (hereafter LBWF) wants to demolish Selwyn Primary School in Highams Park and replace it with a modular building block of the same capacity.

Executive head teacher Maureen Okoye appears to be spearheading the plans.

Shortly after she took over running Selwyn there were allegations that she had a “dictatorial” style, and treated staff “unfairly”. Eventually, 12 teachers resigned in unison, leading Ms. Okoye to comment (in what must be one of the understatements of the year): “when you introduce new ideas there will be a bit of resistance”. The Waltham Forest Guardian covered the story at length here:

The ostensible justification for the new proposals is that the school has a roof that leaks, rooms that are draughty, and an £80,000 annual maintenance bill, much of which comes from money that is really meant for books, trips, and teaching staff.

However, many believe that wider questions of finance are probably uppermost.

It is understandable that LBWF should enthusiastically back the plans for Selwyn, because the funding comes from central government’s PF2 programme (the re-branded Private Finance Initiative or PFI, which involves Whitehall borrowing from the private sector, and spreading repayments plus interest and service charges over the following decades).

However, the precise details of the sums involved remain shrouded in mystery.  One estimate is that the whole project will cost £8m, but people in the know suggest this figure is a bit low and will result in substandard building finish.

Some think LBWF has got a bargain, but the ugly truth is that – as with other similar schemes under PF2 – the final cost to the public exchequer probably will be about five and a half times the initial outlay, i.e. c. £50m.

Thus, future generations are being saddled with a massive debt.

It is little wonder that, when faced with such harsh realities, some influential MPs now believe that PFI has had its day. The chair of the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, comments: “The irony is that we privatised the buildings but nationalised the debts. It’s crazy…PFI feels like a rotten deal, for the taxpayer and the citizen…how can you end up being locked into massive payments which pre-empt your priorities? The current scheme rips us off”. And George Osborne is no fan, either, having once described PFI as “totally discredited”.

So finance is a pressing issue. But the way that the Selwyn plans have been handled also remains controversial. The Education Funding Agency is necessarily playing a key role in proceedings, but has withheld significant documentation, including its Refurbishment Assessment.  More generally, it is unclear whether any alternatives to demolition and rebuild have been considered, even though an energy survey for Selwyn completed last summer listed various cost effective options for upgrading heating and lighting. All in all, it appears that LBWF is intent on rushing the project through, with the recent decision to grant permission for temporary classrooms on the site, and thus expedite demolition, simply adding further fuel to the fire.

The fact that asbestos is known to be present at Selwyn in a number of locations has also raised concerns, because though the material is currently being managed, demolition could trigger health risks. Of course, the removal of asbestos can be – and should be – carried out entirely safely. But LBWF has a poor record in similar circumstances, and with the example of, in particular, St Mary’s Primary School, Walthamstow, before them [see linked post, below], it is understandable that local people should be wary.

Selwyn has a proud history (notable ex-pupils include Sir George Edwards, designer of Concorde, and Sir Johnny Dankworth, the eminent jazz musician), and is the last publicly owned Victorian building in Highams Park. Such heritage is now threatened.

However, all is not completely lost. Historic England (previously English Heritage) recently has become involved and in next few weeks will submit a report to the Secretary of State for Culture outlining the case for preservation. Delay will inevitably follow, and hopefully this will then allow further probing of all the salient issues raised here.

If you would like to be part of the campaign to prevent demolition, please submit your views directly to LBWF, citing Application Reference Number 153749FUL’.

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